Magazine Cartooning Not Quite Par Excellence

Posted by on January 3rd, 2011 at 1:00 PM

The annual indulgence from The New Yorker showed up a couple weeks ago. Dated November 1, the so-called “cartoon issue” is, as usual, a mixed blessing at best; at worst, a grudging nod in the direction of the art form that keeps the magazine afloat — in financial terms as well as appealing to readers. Some years ago, the magazine’s management acknowledged that its Cartoon Bank generated enough income to tip the balance sheet from the red to the black. And even the effetely journalistic editors have sometimes admitted that most of The New Yorker’s readers skim through each issue to read the cartoons before submerging themselves in the deathless text of the articles.

Still, the blessings of the “cartoon issue” are mixed. On the one hand, it’s gratifying that one of the last two remaining major markets for magazine cartoons (the other is Playboy) thinks cartoons are important enough to warrant an annual celebration of this sort; on the other hand, we’re disappointed at the conspicuous absence of any articles about cartooning. In a magazine that champions cartooning and prides itself on both its cartoon and prose content, you’d think the “cartoon issue” would do more for cartooning than simply print a dozen uninterrupted pages of cartoons more than it usually publishes. You’d think, in short, that the “cartoon issue” should perpetuate the practice that it initiated in 1997 when it carried articles about cartoonists and cartooning as well as more cartoons that usual. But, no — that hasn’t happened. Ever again. That 1997 inaugural “cartoon issue” was the best and, subsequently, the only issue that treated its subject in both prose and picture.

Instead of a text piece about cartooning or cartoonists, the editors have in recent “cartoon issues,” including this one, published an article about a comedian, thinking, apparently, that since cartoons provoke laughter, anything that provokes laughter is suitable fodder for the “cartoon issue.” This year, it’s 27-year-old Aziz Ansari, whose parents immigrated to South Carolina from India before Ansari was born, so he speaks with a Southern accent rather than the British-inflected Indian. If you watch Parks and Recreation, you’d recognize him as Tom Haverford, “an inept ladies’ man”; but I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, so I don’t recognize him at all, but I’m looking forward to reading the article even though it’s not about a cartoonist.

The 122 pages of this issue of The New Yorker are like most issues: They carry a generous sprinkling of cartoons throughout. It qualifies as the “cartoon issue” by reason of an 18-page section devoted entirely to cartoons: 18 single-panel cartoons of the usual sort plus eight manifestations of Roz Chast, a four-page comic strip by Zachary Kanin (Noah’s Ark, funny but pointless), and six of the past winners of the magazine’s weekly Cartoon Caption Contest, ostensibly celebrating the Contest’s fifth anniversary but actually a cheap way to fill 2 more pages with reprints rather than fresh inventions.

I’ve never quite understood the fascination Chast holds for The New Yorker audience. Her comedy takes the form of a kind of cataloging, which, admittedly, is often mildly amusing; but her drawings are close to the worst among equals. (The worst are the attempts of Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor.) To be more exact and to avoid glibness, it would be better to say that Chast’s cartoons are simply lame. They’re lame because her line lacks confidence, and so do her compositions. The faces of all her characters look the same, and her command of anatomy is equally tenuous: she can’t draw hands (or, to judge from the evidence persistently before us, ears), and the arms of her characters look like spaghetti. And the cross-hatching that she does is more knitting than shading. Yes, her drawing still might be close to the worst in the magazine, but she’s not alone. She’s with Ed Koren’s shaggy humanoids and Bruce Eric Kaplan’s wide-stance matrons and David Sipress’s tiny-footed wobblies and Barbara Smaller’s shading, desperately searching for a reason for being in the drawing.

I realize I’m being irreverently hard on these eminences, but when I think of Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson and Charles Addams and George Price — not to mention Sam Cobean, Whitney Darrow Jr., Chon Day, Alan Dunn, F.B. Modell, Saul Steinberg, Gluyas Williams and Eldon Dedini (to let slip a few names) — I have to wonder how this other lot get published so often in a magazine renowned for what it calls its “drawings.” It is a mystery best explained by the cartoon editor, whose own drawing ability is just a shade worse than these others.

HEREIN, CHAST GETS the first four pages of “The Funnies” section. The cartoon section that is the heart of the cartoon issue is thereby kicked off by lame drawings. Four pages of them. I mean no disrespect to Chast as a person. In person, Chast is a very funny lady; she was one of the speakers at the OSU Festival of Cartoon Art last month, and she was lively and thoroughly engaging with wickedly insightful comments on both the world at large and her cartoony version of it. Not at all the wizened-maiden-aunt-in-a-shawl sort of personality her cartoons lead you to imagine. But her drawings are wizened and shawled to a fare-thee-well.

Two of the cartoons in “The Funnies” are treated with the kind of disdain for visual art that suggests the editors don’t really want to do a cartoon issue at all. These two drawings are printed straddling the gutter, which means that parts of each drawing are obscured, tucked into the magazine’s binding in willful disregard for the cartoonists’ having drawn them the way they did because they thought the entire drawing, including all its parts, should be viewed. From the editors’ perspective, the cartoonists were obviously misguided in what they must now regard as a childlike belief.

Considerations other than artistic reign in other departments of the magazine — on the cover, for instance. The mailing label that sends each week’s issue unerringly to subscribers is pasted on the cover art, defacing it. The magazine pays great sums for the art that decorates its covers (in 2004, Eldon Dedini noted that he could make $4,000 for a cover drawing), but then defiles it by laminating a foreign object onto it. In one memorable instance, a drawing by Sempé of the interior of a gigantic theater with a single diminutive individual in the audience, the label was pasted over the person in the audience thereby obliterating altogether the humor, which rested entirely on the contrast between the tininess of the only patron in the midst of the vastness of its ocean of seats.

Seized every once in a while by a nearly uncontrollable sense of outrage at this kind of abuse, I have occasionally written the art director, Françoise Mouly, to urge that if the label cannot be moved to the back cover (a maneuver that the Post Office doubtless wouldn’t object to), then at least use an adhesive that permits a subscriber to peel the label off in order to behold the cover art in a wholly unblemished state. As it is presently, if you peel off the label, you take part of the artwork with it, as you’ll see in a trice.

Alas, nothing has come of my assaults on the establishment. Apparently the highly technical not to say immense machinery for applying the mailing label has been set up for several eons and admits of no tinkering whatsoever; nothing, seemingly, can be done about the desecration. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t retool the mailing label machine. Too bad. Sad.

The cartoon issue’s cover is more cartoony than the usual cover art, as you can see nearby.

(The telltale evidence of the location of the mailing label is betrayed by the white scar just below the table at the lower left.) With this array of decorative circles, cartoonist Ivan Brunetti provokes us into playing a Who’s Who game. Without studying very much, I can identify Edgar Allan Poe, Miss Liberty, Elvis (or an Elvis impersonator), Groucho Marx, Shakespeare, Popeye and Olive, and such comic-book dignitaries as Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Superman, Robin, and so on. It’s a pleasant diversion and the array is undeniably cartoony and also makes a nice design in a wallpapery way, but the picture is mostly high-school geometry — circles and such other shapes as can be produced with a compass and a ruler.

Brunetti has committed this kind of “art” before, and he’s done it again on the cover of Marvel’s Strange Tales II No. 3. It’s a phase, I’m sure. Brunetti, who teaches courses in design, illustration and the graphic novel at Chicago’s Columbia College, is an unusually articulate and observant practitioner of the arts of cartooning; he has written a book, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, which is due in the spring, and I’m looking forward to reading it. But I hope he gets the spheroid phase of his cartooning out of his system before committing too much more of it.

One of the best things in the “cartoon issue” is the series of color spots by cartoonist Charles Barsotti. The New Yorker has always run tiny spot drawings by anonymous artists to break up the dull gray monotony of its columns of type, but a few years ago, the magazine began featuring the work of a different artist in each issue, using a series of spots by the same individual and crediting that person on the Table of Contents page. Sometimes the spots even depicted a sequence of actions or incidents. This time, the spot artist is Barsotti, a graduate of Hallmark Cards and once cartoon editor for The Saturday Evening Post, which folded in January 1970. He says William Shawn (The New Yorker’s second editor, who succeeded founder Harold Ross at Ross’s death) and cartoon editor Jim Geraghty “unfolded” him, and he became a contract New Yorker cartooner. Barsotti is renowned in certain circles for his spectacular but unsuccessful comic strip Sally Bananas (circa 1970). He also tinkers with design, as you can tell from his spot drawings.

Despite all the carping herewith about The New Yorker’s imperfect realization of my hopes for a cartoon issue, I rejoice at the magazine’s annual tribute to gag cartoonists and their artistry. As you can tell, my disappointment masks a fervent hope for better and better, but at least we’re starting at pretty dang good, notwithstanding various nasty shortfalls.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , , ,

2 Responses to “Magazine Cartooning Not Quite Par Excellence”

  1. michael says:

    Thanks for pointing this out! It’s really quite outrageous. Also I couldn’t agree with you more about Ed Koren’s hideous goblin muppets. At least Chast has charm.

  2. Mike Hunter says:

    Yes, the Cartoon Issue should feature articles and interviews about cartoonists.

    However, Roz Chast’s art – however far she may stray from the approach of those Old Masters from the heyday of the magazine – has a shaggy-dog whimsicality, matching her often deliciously off-kilter wit. (See the glum vendor in the Jan. 3 issue…)

    And, much as I love those Old Master “New Yorker” cartoonists, there’s room in my heart for non-classical approaches (James Thurber, anyone?) and more modern stylings such as William Haefeli’s angular, often-gay, folks.

    Where Chris Ware’s “rounded people” are ugly and reveal a dyspeptic view of the human condition, Brunetti’s version is charming, delightful. Rather than simply “high-school geometry,” it’s beautiful caricature in the “no superfluous lines” approach.